“Let that stage be your stepping stone, not your tombstone.” That’s the number one rule at The Pynk, the gritty yet vibrant strip club that sits at the center of Starz’s newest hour-long drama series, P-Valley. Award-winning playwright Katori Hall’s show centers the erotic dancers of Chucalissa, Mississippi, navigating their lives both on and off the dance floor.
In 2019, Lorene Scafaria turned her lens on the lives of exotic dancers with the critically acclaimed Hustlers, but the women in P-Valley are a world away from Wall Street. These women’s hardships and experiences can’t be covered up with floor-length mink coats or Birkin bags. Instead, Hall, along with 24-year-old director Karena Evans (Drake’s “God’s Plan,” “Nice For What”), pulls the veil back on this astounding setting, exposing the burdens and joys of Black women from all walks of life.
Running from a past that nearly broke her, Autumn (Elarica Johnson) started working at The Pynk after winning an amateur booty-shaking contest. Though it’s not immediately clear what secrets Autumn has buried in her soul, the bruises on her face, her unwillingness to reveal her true identity, and some jolting dreams fueled by PTSD let the viewer know it’s nothing good. Her Louboutin-clad feet and haughty attitude immediately put her at odds with the club’s OG, Mercedes (a magnificent Brandee Evans), a soon-to-be-retired dancer determined to build a new life for herself. Despite her aspirations, Mercedes struggles with letting go of her status and the familiarity of the club while trying to maintain a relationship with her religious and manipulative mother, Patrice (Harriett D. Foy). Though she’s The Pynk’s star, Mercedes is constantly combating the stigma that surrounds her chosen profession.
The Pynk is run by Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), the club’s warm but no-nonsense gender-nonconforming owner. The queen of the castle, Clifford, is quick to provide a soft landing place or a swift read to any of the ladies working her nerves. Although Uncle Clifford wants The Pynk to be a haven for the ladies, the “booty money” that’s coming in isn’t enough to dig her out of the hole she’s dug for herself—especially not without a liquor license. After all, the Dirty Delta is still very much embedded in the Bible Belt. And, though Chucalissa has elected its first Black mayor (Isaiah Washington), he’s unfortunately not looking out for his community.
With an expansive ensemble cast, Hall brings a warmth and richness to each character, even those with less screen time. The protective but gentle war veteran turned bouncer Diamond (Tyler Leply) is enraptured by Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), a Pynk dancer, stuck in an abusive relationship. There’s also Big L (Morocco Omari), Uncle Clifford’s accountant, and Andre (Parker Sawyers), a mystery man in town for business, who isn’t quite who he claims to be.
P-Valley is immediately distinctive because of its realism. Like current popular dramas Hollywood or Little Fires Everywhere, the audience doesn’t simply serve as a voyeur to the surface-level glitz and glamour of this world; one is drawn into all angles of these women’s lives—even the painful parts. In the pilot, Evans is careful to set the tone, showcasing her actors in blue and purple lights, while stripping away the hyper-sexualization that Black women have endured on-screen for centuries. When Mercedes takes the stage, Hall captures the pure athleticism that she and the other women possess. As Mercedes climbs the pole, the music fades out. The audience only hears her pants and groans as she exerts herself to reach the ceiling before daringly dropping to the bottom—headfirst. It’s stunning and terrifying.
The series also highlights the richness and history of the community that surrounds the strip club. The stifling Mississippi heat emanates off the screen, as P-Valley digs its heels into the South’s cadence. From the Black cowboys to the dilapidated surrounding businesses to the gold-tooth-wearing men like patron and aspiring rapper Lil’ Murda ( J. Alphonse Nicholson), The Pynk is just one component of this compelling but rarely seen ecosystem.
P-Valley finds its rhythm in unpacking the nuances and particularities of Black womanhood. Competition, clashing personalities, and the underlying impacts of colorism immediately put Autumn and Mercedes in each other’s crosshairs. Yet, there are still moments of sisterhood and camaraderie between the two. With so many stereotypes and caricatures depicting “angry Black women” on TV, this is a welcome change. There is a real sense of sisterhood at The Pynk, especially since the world outside of it doesn’t exactly embrace these women.
Femininity and masculinity as performances are also explored in P-Valley. This exploration goes beyond Uncle Clifford’s dazzling manicures and wigs. It examines the burdens of Black women and what we’ve been forced to endure across history from within and outside of our community. While the men who come to The Pynk are caught up in the fantasy of it all, the women are under no illusions. Even Patrice, who turns her nose up at Mercedes’ lifestyle, fares no better in her church when it comes to sexism.
P-Valley is nearly flawless, but it does have two small ripples. The series integrates Autumn’s present with her past in surreal dreamlike sequences and hazy flashbacks. Though these scenes get the point across, they aren’t always effective. Through a panic attack or a drunken haze, Autumn’s memories jolt the viewer from the seamless texture and tone of the series. Moreover, at certain points, Mercedes’ character arc seems to be barreling toward predictability. Despite the tension in their relationship, she’s charged her mother with holding on to the majority of her savings from her years at The Pynk. However, Patrice has her own personal ambitions and Mercedes’ cash is all too tempting. Thankfully, Evans’ resounding presence on-screen and a plot twist quickly snaps the series back into place.
Helmed by an all-female directing lineup, P-Valley is a compelling character-driven story that shines a spotlight on the beauty and scars of women, Black women, in particular. It is an unapologetically Southern and Black story that puts women who are often shamed and pushed toward society’s edges right back where they belong—center stage.